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Minn. firefighters get a look at cancer-fighting research

Members of the Minnesota Professional Fire Fighters Association learned about research into lung cancer varieties


The Hormel Institute/Facebook

By Eric Johnson
Austin Daily Herald

AUSTIN, Minn. — On Wednesday and Thursday of this week, the Minnesota Professional Fire Fighters Association (MPFF) held its annual state convention in Austin.

Over the course of two days, the MPFF held its annual business as well as training seminars that covered a range of things including contractional union topics, technology and mental health.

It also conducted a field trip of sorts when firefighters visited The Hormel Institute on Wednesday, giving them a chance to tour the facility as well as learn about research into lung cancer and accompanying therapies.

Following visits to the Institute’s Cryo-EM lab, firefighters sat in on a presentation by Dr. Luke Hoeppner, PhD, who along with his team is currently studying lung cancer varieties.

“For one, it’s really eye-opening,” said Austin firefighter and local union representative Tom Schulte. “I’ve been here, but didn’t fully understand all the things they do here. It expanded my knowledge of this place, but also I think it opened the eyes of a lot of firefighters here today.”

Cancer has increasingly come to the forefront in the firefighting profession in recent years largely centered around PFAS chemicals used in making a lot of firefighting safety gear.

Within the gear itself the chemicals present no danger, but it’s when those chemicals begin breaking down the danger truly sets in.

“We’re constantly being exposed to it,” Schulte said.

According to the Centers of Disease Control, cancer is the leading cause of death among firefighters so visiting the Institute on Wednesday to learn more about current research was especially poignant.

“Right now, cancer is one of the leading causes of death with firefighters,” said MPFF President Scott Vadnais. “PTSD is coming up really fast behind that and that’s a big issue. We’re trying to be leaders in terms of helping our members.”

During this year’s state convention, firefighters had the opportunity to have their hearts, lungs and arteries checked. It’s part of an ongoing effort extending down from the International Association of Fire Fighters all the way through to state and local levels.

“What we’re trying to do is get early detection for our members so they can get treated,” Vadnais said.

Currently, the MPFF and other union bodies are working to try and get PFAS out of gear used by firefighters.

“What we’re finding out is the gear we use and the chemicals that we use that are supposed to be protecting us are not actually protecting us,” Vadnais said. “They are actually causing cancer. We’re trying to get specifically the PFAS chemicals out of our turnout gear. We’re trying to get the law changed so it makes it illegal to put them in.”

Another aspect of the state convention is the networking component. It allows firefighters to come together to learn what each department is doing as well as simply catching up.

“Just learning from each other and getting to know each other,” Vadnais said. “WE do this every year in different cities. It’s kind of a boon for Austin to come in and tell us about their department and their city and meet their fire chief and city leaders and local politicians. To kind of pilot what happens down here in Austin.”

Schulte agreed.

“It’s great. The camaraderie and friendships we build over the years just go so far,” he said. “It really helps being able to learn what’s going on in other cities. Just having those experiences and those networking processes of getting to know people and learning different things from different cities in the state.”

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